A server raving about his chef.
Such a simple thing, but when you're mulling a complex menu, there's nothing quite like it to inspire confidence and an adventurous spirit.
“I keep trying it at home,” ours said of chef-owner Hugo Ramirez's chorizo and sweet potato hash, “but I can't quite get it.”
This is Limones in Asheville, where Ramirez, a Mexico City native who worked in San Francisco, offers an inventive lineup that leans on both places (and some French technique, too).
“What Hugo does,” our server raved on, “is put things together.” He went on to recommend appetizers of housemade ceviche (fish or shellfish “cooked” with lime juice) and chicken tinga taquitos with chipotle caldillo. Tinga is a well-seasoned braise; here it's rolled into corn tortillas, fried and served in a spicy chile broth that's at once biting and smooth.
We also tried a salad of arugula with chunks of watermelon and Maytag blue cheese and a pomegranate-chile vinaigrette with a mere suggestion of heat. Nice.
A pork chop an inch and a half thick, brined with spices, proved moist without being hammy, and came with the hash and braised spinach. I also liked a chile relleno stuffed with veal ragout.
But what was most endearing, again, was its discussion. Ramirez uses poblanos for this recipe, we were told, and they're unpredictable: They can be hot, they can be not, and you're taking a chance ordering it. “He doesn't serve it with a cheese sauce to cover it up; the flavors are all clean.”
As it turned out, this was on the milder end of the spectrum, but a vibrant mole negro and roasted jalapeno crema gave the dish plenty of flavor. Plantains sweetened the pot, and only the Japanese-breadcrumb-coated green tomato underneath it all was superfluous – though if the poblano had been a hot one, I can imagine this would've come in handy as a cooling-off bite.
(Those averse to risk had the choice of a milder Anaheim chile used in a vegetarian relleno a little lower on the menu; yes, there's plenty for vegetarians, and yes, there's an emphasis on local and organic products.)
There were other interesting options, including duck breast with corn-bacon risotto, seared scallops with Meyer-lemon-boiled N.C. shrimp and a crab tamal, and horseradish-potato-crusted sea bass with salmon roe.
The range extends to drinks. Skip the skinny by-the-glass wine list and peruse nearly three dozen tequilas and a creative menu of fruit-juice margaritas (blood orange!) and other mixed drinks.
And don't miss a killer flan.
Limones, 13 Eagle St. in Asheville; 828-252-2327. www.limones restaurant.com .
Early Girl Eatery
And in the running-to-catch-up category, I finally stopped at Early Girl Eatery, a downtown Asheville spot known for its use of local goods in an unpretentious setting. Here (8 Wall St., 828-259-9292), I had an amazing cheeseburger with basil mayo on a really good bun, and service that was so unpretentious it was practically comatose.
The burger (locally raised, hormone-free beef) was juicy, its mild farmstead cheese perfectly melted and square-cut fries on the side beautifully done. But our host didn't speak as she seated us and looked annoyed as she seated others around us. Our server was monosyllabic, and others we watched were similarly uncommunicative, though I did see another smile once at a diner.
Spinach-potato cakes the size and shape of slightly flattened golf balls lacked oomph of any kind (even the tomato gravy was bland), though my sides – squash casserole and grits – shone. A pulled-barbecue-style free-range chicken sandwich was terrific: moist, flavorful and with great, simple slaw.
So ... meh. Asheville has too many places to work through for me to try here again soon.
Have a suggestion? Let me know at hschwab@charlotte observer.com.